In a garage on Olympia’s west side, two fighters sit side by side in powered wheelchairs, then let the punches fly.
Simon Calcavecchia takes a right hook to the head. He dodges another. The fighters lock arms and hurl insults.
“You’re going down,” taunts Joshua Curtis, his boxing glove coming loose. “What’s wrong buddy, you can’t reach me?”
The sparring session ends with laughter, but their purpose is serious.
The friends will duke it out July 25 in “Clash of the Quads,” billed as the world’s first mixed martial arts fight between two quadriplegics. They plan to fight 10 rounds, each lasting two minutes — and at some point, the gloves will come off.
“There will be some bare knuckles,” Calcavecchia promises. “We want to entertain.”
The fight will take place at United Training Center in Lacey. Proceeds will go toward a goal that’s been two years in the making: Calcavecchia wants to become the first quadriplegic to climb Mount Adams, Washington’s second-highest peak at nearly 12,300 feet.
“This is the biggest physical challenge I have ever faced,” said Calcavecchia, 32. “I just wanted to go to the top of a mountain and it evolved into this.”
As quadriplegics, Calcavecchia and Curtis have no feeling or movement from the chest down. The same goes for the bottom half of their outstretched arms. To get an idea of what it’s like, Curtis suggests drawing an imaginary straight line from the tip of his middle finger, across his chest to the end of the other arm. Everything from that line down lacks feeling.
In fact, Calcavecchia broke a finger on his wheelchair while sparring with Curtis, but couldn’t feel the injury. He recently burned his left elbow while cooking and only realized it when his arm involuntarily jolted upon contact with the heat.
“It hurt my mom more than it hurt me,” Calcavecchia said.
In 2002, Calcavecchia had moved to Australia to pursue a passion for professional rugby. The Capital High School graduate was 19 years old, lived five minutes from the beach, and was having the time of his life.
In just his third game, Calcavecchia broke his neck during a scrum, in which players slam together and fight for the ball. The impact bent his head backward.
“The next thing I remember, I’m on the ground looking up,” he said, with medical staff rushing over to him on the field. “I tried to raise my arms and nothing moved.”
Recovery has been years in the making. He has since joined a wheelchair rugby league and has reconnected with the local Budd Bay Rugby squad as a coach.
He also found a friend in Curtis. The two met last year after Calcavecchia’s wheelchair lost power in downtown Olympia. Curtis happened to be passing by and pushed him to a cafe.
Before he became a quadriplegic, Curtis was immersed in taekwondo and had been winning competitions in the Junior Olympics.
At age 19, he was injured while diving from a rope swing into the Deschutes River. He remembers everything — from being under water to waiting with his friends for help to arrive.
“I thought I was gone for sure,” said Curtis, 36.
Now he is instrumental in helping Calcavecchia conquer Mount Adams in May or June 2016 by raising money for the custom equipment and support crew required for the five-day climb. One of Calcavecchia’s mentors is Pete Rieke, a Pasco resident who in 2000 became the first paralyzed climber to reach the summit of Mount Rainier under his own power.
Rieke used a self-designed hand-cranked “snow pod,” and is designing a similar contraption for Calcavecchia. During the climb, Calcavecchia will sit in the snow pod and use a rowing motion to hoist himself up the mountain, inches at a time.
Calcavecchia’s mother, Julie Godden, cringed while watching last week’s sparring session, but she stands behind her son’s goals.
“I’m always supportive of whatever he wants to do,” she said.
In the months leading up to the big climb, Calcavecchia will step up his training and strengthen the muscles in his shoulders, arms and back. The Mount Adams challenge is another way to stoke the competitive fire that has never stopped burning for him. Physical activities like wheelchair rugby and weightlifting provide a release that he compares to counseling.
“Even though I’m in this chair,” he said, “I still feel indestructible.”